A Day in the Life (3)… [Biochemistry] by Cambridge
Another biochemist sharing his experience as an exchange student.
[by Patrick ’09]
I am another Biochemist coming from MIT to Cambridge. I am not nearly as advanced as Kathy, so I have no lab work at all. Instead, I take a lecture course, hashing out the basics. Differences between the two educational systems
are very fundamental.
As Kathy has said, Biology as conceived by Cambridge is about knowing a vast set of facts. Moreover, this set is rather rigidly defined for undergrads; it’s an old philosophy, which says that all “educated” people should have a common foundation. Ask any young Cantabridgian to expound on collagen, but s/he may not know how to use a pipette:
Cambridge teaches passion. It assumes that tools will appear if the idea is planted in you. Learn about poetry, and you will acquire literacy to write your own.
At MIT, students are equiped to look pretty in the lab. For example, I can pour a gel, then set up a PCR and eat lunch before the gel sets. I understand not how or why. Last year, I finished an entire project on a protein, knowing only
its name and that it “caused cancer.” Fact. It was Cambridge that finally taught me what the protein was.
MIT teaches process. It assumes that inspiration will follow if the tools are laid before you. Learn the alphabet, and you will be moved to produce poetry.
Clearly, both schools are missing something. Knowledge and practice do exist in both places, but it seems we can only focus on one at a time.
“So, which has better academics, MIT or Cambridge?”
To me, the question is meaningless. My second subjet – Zoology – has no equivalent at MIT. It’s not cutting edge, and it doesn’t cure cancer. But it’s a fascinating subject, which I doubt I can explore as deeply without a department to guide me. This is what I will remember most about Cambridge.
As for Biochemistry, I hope students in either country end up in the same place as professionals. Any differences leading up to that point are just differences in order.
One thing I notice about Cambridge students is that few things stand in their way of enjoying life. Along with parties and such, I am talking about sports, activities, and “cultural enrichment.” Last week, I went to an unpublicised recital at Trinity College, where I randomly met five members of my own college. Last term, students hosted a Chinese New Year gala on a scale that we would not expect at MIT.
I know these are poor excuses for not studying. But as Justin said, Cambridge students keep an eye on the long-term, and that includes learning to retain knowledge while leaving enough slack to not hate yourself after doing it. (I don’t care how much satisfaction you get from 4am psets – they are not “fun” in the strictest sense.)
Still thinking about CME? Consider this: If you love your side of the Atlantic and don’t want to learn any other way, then be happy to stay where you are. If you are intrigued by change, then come along. Bring optimism but not
expectations. Look for something completely different. You’ll regard MIT with fresh eyes and renewed spirits. Plus, your friends will be terribly impressed with you.